Ashley Bryan has been a prolific children’s book author and illustrator throughout his long career. He’s received several starred Kirkus reviews and is a three-time winner of the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King Award, given each year to African-American authors and illustrators. His latest book, Freedom over Me, was inspired by his own collection of slavery-related documents, which date from the 1820s to the 1860s. In poems and illustrations, he imaginatively expands upon rudimentary descriptions of slaves to tell stories of their lives and dreams. He lives in Islesford, one of the Cranberry Isles off the coast of Maine. We asked him a few questions about the book and its creation.
Freedom over Me is based on an 1828 estate appraisement. What do you know about the origin of this document, and what was your reaction upon first reading it?
At an auction in Maine of slave documents, I acquired about 20….Among them was an 1828 document of the Fairchilds’ estate listing 11 slaves for sale, as property, with the hogs, cotton, cows. Only the name and price of the slave was listed. I felt the need to bring these slaves to life by creating a way in which they could tell their stories.
You seem to have created these portraits very nearly from scratch, as you knew relatively few hard facts about their subjects. Can you describe your process while creating them?
To bring these slaves to life, I first drew the portraits of each one. I gave them an age and a job on the estate: cook, carpenter, seamstress, blacksmith. I created the portraits based on the features of my family and friends. This brought them close to me. I then asked them to tell
me, “Who are you? Where did you come from? What is your story?”
After the 11 slaves told me their stories, I was deeply moved by their lives. Knowing that human beings all have dreams that we hope to realize, I thought of asking them what their dreams would be if they were living as free people. Their dreams are what brought each one to my heart and soul.
The desire to create is a recurring theme in these poems. Stephen, a carpenter, wants to design and build homes (“But through my carpentry / I feel the accomplishment / and pride / of a free man”); cattle-tender John longs to draw (“I plan one day / to draw freely / from free Negro people”); and Jane, a seamstress, wants to make colorful fabrics (“I weave these thoughts / into dreamcloths / of Freedom”). In your view, how are the concepts of creation and freedom linked?
The desire to create is in all people, no matter the condition under which they live. Under the dread conditions of slavery, slaves created thousands of songs called spirituals. In medieval times, all art was created for the greater glory of God. The spirituals are noted as the only time in the Western world when the art of a people was solely dedicated to the greater glory of God. The slaves’ musical gift of creating the spirituals expresses the true meaning of Freedom.
In the end, which one of these people came to life most vividly for you?
I became each slave as I wrote of their lives. However, it is the young boy, John, who discovers his love of drawing that became the slave closest to me. He knew that if he was discovered drawing he would be brutally punished as a Black man drawing and reading freely. I felt even more deeply John’s desire to create.
What are you working on now?
I have been working on my World War II memoirs. It will be illustrated with selections from the hundreds of drawings I did while serving in a segregated army as a stevedore in a port battalion.
David Rapp is an Indie editor.